Without a doubt the most mercurial news item of the month was the drama unfolding around Innocence of the Muslims. It is so mercurial that I hesitate to describe it for fear that, by the time you read this, it will have already morphed into something else — an opera, perhaps, or a Korean hip-hop video. A week ago, I might have described it as a low-budget feature-length movie, but a story at The Atlantic Wire has since thrown even that into question. It now appears that the YouTube trailer may be all that exists of it. For the moment, let’s call it a cinematic stunt.
If there is, in fact, no movie, that makes the furor over Innocence of the Muslims all the more outsized. Without a doubt it has offended the sensibilities of many Muslims. It has likely played some role in motivating protests in what the press has been complacent in calling “the Muslim world.” It has contributed to deadly attacks on U.S. embassies in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Sudan. It roiled the U.S. presidential race, testing the patience of many Republicans with their newly christened candidate.
What Went Wrong?
Inevitably, these events — and not just the events themselves, but their coverage — have turned the West back to a theme that has obsessed American and European discussion for decades now. It’s plainest expression may be the title of Bernard Lewis’ 2002 book, What Went Wrong? the kernel of which was an article Lewis had written for The Atlantic earlier the same year. It was the culmination of a shift in Lewis’ scholarship that had first surfaced with 1990′s “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” also published in The Atlantic, and which saw his drift away from academic exploration into a twilight career as adviser to the hawks in the second Bush administration.
The premise that there is something intrinsic in “the Muslim world” that breeds animosity between them and us (what Lewis called “the clash of civilizations”) and which periodically gives rise to such upheavals has again surfaced around the Innocence of the Muslims episode. On Monday, Newsweek provoked some derision by publishing “Muslim Rage & The Last Gasp of Islamic Hate,” an essay by Dutch politician and writer Ayyan Hirsi Ali, who is probably best known in the U.S. for her outspoken opposition to Islam. Before that, The Washington Post saw fit to run an op-ed by Fouad Ajami under the title “Why is the Arab world so easily offended?” as though there were no question that it made sense to talk not only of the Middle East as a world but to talk also of that world as being unified in feeling offense. Ajami, who has argued against Samuel Huntington’s version of the trope, nevertheless revisits the clash of civilizations here, even citing What Went Wrong? “In the past half-century,” he writes, “Arabs, as well as Muslims in non-Arab lands, have felt the threat of an encircling civilization they can neither master nor reject.”
Is the problem, then, that Arabs and Muslims inhabit a world defined by a deeply entrenched feeling of inferiority? Doubtful. Perhaps some Arabs and Muslims feel that way — it might be possible to discern something of the sort in the late Osama Bin Laden’s hopes of reviving the Caliphate. But to define an entire “world” by that bitterness makes it all too easy to overlook very real grievances.
If the general public in the U.S. and Europe perceives Muslims and Arabs as irrationally — perhaps inexplicably — prone to violence in response to seemingly harmless sleights, it may be because we are prone to two tricks of perspective. The first is the foreshortening of historical perspective, such that we fail to see the accumulation of grievances that stoke tempers in the region. The proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back is nothing in itself. The damage comes from adding it to a pile that already weighs a ton. On its own, Innocence is nothing — probably not even a movie. But for many Muslims, it is inextricably linked to a long sequence of sleights and interventions, to drone attacks and puppet leaders, economic exploitation and unwanted military presence. They must also be acutely aware that none of this is new, that the West has been calling the tune in the Middle East since World War I and before, even back to Napolean’s entrance into Egypt by some reckonings. There is evidence to suggest that, far from being a spontaneous outbreak of violence, the first embassy attack in Benghazi began as a militant-planned action, using protests over Innocence as a distraction from the entrenched political goal striking a blow against American presence in Libya. In any case, it can be no coincidence that the riots have taken place in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Sudan, four countries that have recently seen popular revolutions against political regimes with a history as clients of Western interests.
That’s the temporal element. The spatial trick of perspective has to do with the perception that, in some sense, Muslims and Arabs inhabit a world of their own. It’s that presumed hermetic seal between their world and ours that makes it such a shock when events there touch close to home. At some level, the emotional root of the last decade of political and public rhetoric, epitomized by the “war on terror,” is the Lovecraftian terror that something from another world has somehow broken through into our own.
A World of Aliases
Almost as parody, Innocence reflects that perception in its absurdly low production values. There is an unreality to the world it presents, with its green-screen horizon and its grease-painted actors, that suggests the Western observers’ incomplete ability to suspend disbelief about the Muslim world. The result is a metaphor almost too on the nose to believe: an auteur who has to create a crude Muslim world in order to insult it, falsifying identities in post-production in order to shape anachronism into blasphemy. It’s almost tempting to interpret Innocence as a work of performance art and to credit its makers with a satire so subtle that no one got the joke.
In that regard, the most representative aspect of Innocence is the complicated series of trapdoors and fun house mirrors involved in reporting it. The initial narrative was that the trailer had been produced and written by an Israeli-American named Sam Bacile and funded by a coterie of wealthy Israelis. Journalists have since settled on a California man, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, as the trailer’s likely author. Nakoula, who has since submitted to questioning by the federal probation officers, is an Egyptian-born Coptic Christian, which may explain the motive behind the trailer.
The Copts are a long-suffering minority in Egypt. Three years ago, for example, when Egyptian authorities ordered the slaughter of many of the country’s pigs on the pretext of stifling a potential swine flu outbreak, many perceived the order as a covert strike against Coptic farmers who subsisted on a herd Islamic custom prevented their neighbors from raising. Presumably, Nakoula produced Innocence to sleight Egypt’s dominant Muslim majority. The Sam Bacile pseudonym was crafted to deflect the backlash away from Nakoula’s fellow Copts. That it would redirect that backlash onto Israeli Jews is telling as well, since it evokes the equally complex tangle of grievances that motivate the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors, as well as the allies of both.
That sleight-of-hand is itself reflected in the production of the trailer. Further investigations have shown that the film’s director also worked under a pseudonym, and is likely former skin-flick director Alan Roberts. Shortly after the attack on the Benghazi consulate, news began to spread that the cast and crew (reportedly 80 people altogether) had not known that the Prophet was the film’s subject. The script they used was titled Desert Warriors, and the name “Muhammad” was dubbed into the trailer later, replacing the improbable “Master George” cited by the script. One of the actors, Cindy Lee Garcia, has since presented herself as the public face of the cast’s grievance against Bacile.
Such grievances continue to multiply and compound. Bacile, whomever he might be, may have meant Innocence as an expression of what he took to be the malignancy of Islam — as a crude reiteration of the notion that there is something rotten about “the Muslim world” in need of explanation. The result is something more bizarre and complicated, recalling the kaleidoscope of grievances that make the violence of current events so intractable.